In case you haven’t heard it, the joke goes like this: What do you call someone who speaks several languages? Answer: a polyglot. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Answer: bilingual. And how about someone who only speaks one language?
Answer: an American.
The punch line isn’t very funny anymore. In fact, the need to address language diversity in the U.S. is increasingly dire, and the lack of public discussion or policy in the midst of significant demographic and economic change means the situation will only get worse.
One out of five U.S. households now speaks a language other than English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people five and older who don’t speak English at home has exploded five times faster than the nation’s population growth over the past three decades. And don’t assume this is just about Spanish. More than 300 economically viable languages are spoken in the U.S. today.
The bottom line is that U.S. leaders have got to stop taking language for granted. To remain competitive and effective both globally and domestically, the U.S. must address the full impact of linguistic diversity.
U.S. leaders could take a cue from Europe on how to approach language issues. The European Union (EU) is about to launch Horizon 2020, a comprehensive program to increase Europe’s long-term competiveness through research and innovation.
Building on previous multi-year investments in linguistic diversity and infrastructure, Horizon 2020 looks ahead to Europe’s multilingual needs and priorities. Among other things, it addresses innovations in translation technology, advancements in automated translation, and more rigorous educational standards for professional translators.
Specific examples of European projects include:
- QTLaunchPad, a European Commission-funded program to measure translation quality through industry collaboration with European research institutes;
- META-NET, a program to develop automated translation capabilities across all European languages;
- And a partnership between the European Commission, higher education institutions and language-industry companies to offer internships for graduates with a European master’s degree in translation.
The U.S. should follow Europe’s lead in building its own multilingual future. To remain competitive, the U.S. must bring language into the conversation about the national economic infrastructure. Specifically, the United States needs to increase funding for language education, support initiatives that lead to the professionalization of the translation industry, and focus on our own new and innovative forms of language technologies.
U.S. leaders need to realize the critical role multilingual access and equality will play in the country’s ability to compete in the future, and they need to start making it happen now.
Hans Fenstermacher is Chief Executive Officer of the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), the world’s largest trade association for the language industry. More at www.gala-global.org.